Debunking a COVID Myth
Can a myth put your life at risk? In this case, yes.
The stress of COVID makes us all susceptible to seeking out comforting ‘truths’ even when the facts don’t support it. You’ve likely seen this ‘truth’ circulating on social media: the number of COVID deaths is much lower than the official statistic of more than 230,000, and therefore the danger of the disease has been overblown. In August President Trump retweeted a post claiming that only 6 percent of these reported deaths were actually from COVID-19. (The tweet originated from a follower of the debunked conspiracy fantasy QAnon). Twitter removed the post for containing false information, but fabrications such as these continue to spread. For those who believed it, it meant that only 13,000 people really died from COVID, so it’s less deadly than the flu. A comforting thought indeed, but unfortunately wrong and a dangerous myth.
How do we determine if COVID killed someone?
Here is the defining question: “Did they die sooner than they would have if they didn’t have the virus?” Even a person with a potentially life-shortening preexisting condition such as heart disease or diabetes may have lived many more years, had they not become infected with COVID-19.
The 6 percent number touted by Trump and QAnon comes from a weekly CDC report stating that in 6 percent of the coronavirus mortality cases it counted, COVID-19 was the only condition listed on the death certificate. That observation likely means that those death certificates were incomplete because the certifiers only gave the underlying cause of death and not the full causal sequence that led to it. Even someone who does not have a preexisting condition and dies from COVID-19 will also have comorbidities in the form of symptoms like respiratory failure, caused by the coronavirus. The idea that a death certificate with ailments listed in addition to COVID-19 means that the person did not really die from the virus is simply false.
A Second Measurement of COVID Fatalities
While the mortality records data provide a pretty good picture of how many deaths are attributable to the coronavirus, they do not capture all of them. A second, and perhaps more easily understood, set of evidence is called “excess deaths”. This is the number of deaths that occur above the historical pattern for a time period, says Steven Woolf, a physician and population health researcher at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. In a paper published in JAMA this month, Woolf and his colleagues examined death records in the U.S. from March 1 through August 1 and compared them with the expected mortality numbers. They found that there was a 20 percent increase in deaths during this time period—for a total of 225,530 excess deaths—compared with previous years.
So, the argument that, if there are multiple comorbidities on a death certificate in addition to COVID-19, that it was not COVID-19 that killed a patient, is simply wrong. For example, acute respiratory distress, diabetes, respiratory failure, and Covid as listed on a death certificate does not mean that diabetes killed a patient. It may mean that they were more prone to get it. But without COVID-19 they would still be alive.
The bottom line is that this is a disease of extreme danger to everyone. Please take it seriously and do not let down your guard because of a comforting but false claim. In this particular case, political rhetoric can put your life at risk. Be smart and be safe. As always, we’re here to help when you need us.